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Ballowe's legacy: Will Gainesville Model survive?

Now that its architect has been fired, some wonder if it has a future

POSTED: September 7, 2008 5:01 a.m.
The Times file photo/

Steven Ballowe with his book, "The Gainesville Model of Accountability and Achievement" in 2002.

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Steven Ballowe, former superintendent of Gainesville city schools, began his administrative career 30 years ago as the assistant principal of an inner-city school in South Carolina plagued by racial disharmony.

In 1977, he was hired to restore discipline at Eau Claire High in Columbia, S.C., while the National Guard pulled out of the unruly, newly integrated school.

Ballowe said the two years he spent at Eau Claire impacted the focus of his career in education.

"In that volatile situation in an inner-city school, I learned the value of relationships and people," he said. "And especially in a minority community ... the bar so many times had been set so low, that that's what you received in return. By setting a high bar and high standards, students would eagerly meet what you expected of them, and that was behaviorally and academically."

After becoming a principal in a low-achieving South Carolina school district, Ballowe opened Hilton Head High School in the early 1980s. It was there that the roots of the Gainesville Model sprouted.

"My lesson that I learned there was when I first went in, I felt like I had to be the authority, I had to know everything," he said. "And once I realized hey, I couldn't know everything, I had to turn people loose, I had to trust others ... Certainly when you have an administrative team with 20 heads, it was better than one."

Ballowe calls the Gainesville Model of Accountability and Achievement the crowning accomplishment of his career.

And as the 52-year-old father of four cleans out his desk at the Gainesville City Schools Central Office, minority leaders in the community are rallying in support of the model, crediting it and Ballowe for unprecedented minority test scores in Gainesville schools.

On July 3, seven years after the Gainesville City Board of Education unanimously voted to hire Ballowe as superintendent, the board voted 3-2 to fire him. Citing fiscal irresponsibility and a multimillion dollar deficit as a primary factor in the decision to terminate the superintendent's contract with the school board, the board fired Ballowe with two years remaining in his contract.

At a farewell celebration held Thursday for Ballowe, members of the Newtown Florist Club said they plan to hold a march through the streets of Gainesville to express their support for him and the Gainesville Model, fearing it will be dismantled without Ballowe's guidance.

Jim Willis, superintendent of Putnam County Schools, said the first item on his to-do list when he assumed the superintendent position three years ago was to implement the Gainesville Model of accountability there. He said more than 20 school districts across the state have molded their districts after Ballowe's model.

"We basically shaped Putnam County right after Gainesville city," he said. "The Gainesville Model puts students' performance first. ... It's working real well. The proof's in the pudding."

Willis said test scores for minority students are steadily improving, and four Advanced Placement classes have been added to the school system since he put the model into place.

Willis, who was named State Principal of the Year in 1994 while at Clarke Central High School in Athens-Clarke County, has more than 31 years of administrative experience. He said "that model is the best I've seen," calling the Gainesville Model approach both "progressive and common sense."

For several years during Ballowe's tenure in Gainesville, the Georgia School Boards Association presented to new members across the state the Gainesville City Board of Education and its Gainesville Model approach as an example of a well-oiled system.

Willis, who worked as a professional development specialist for the association from 2002 to 2005, said he recruited Ballowe and former Gainesville school board member Frank Harben to explain the tenets of the Gainesville Model to more than 1,000 new school board members statewide during their training.

The model uses methods of pretesting and post-testing each quarter to chart students' progress during the school year. Ballowe said the testing allows teachers to hone in on students who need special attention in particular academic areas, and to address inadequacies before state tests are taken at the end of the school year.

The highly praised model also holds teachers accountable for each student in their classroom, with state test scores from each class posted in the hallways of schools, Ballowe said. The Gainesville Model also highlights the relationship between the school board and the superintendent, with the model calling for the two parties to define new goals for the school system each year following the evaluation of the superintendent, which is made public upon completion.

Ballowe said the challenges he faced at Hilton Head High School, which had a student body that was heavily minority, encouraged him to think outside of the box.

"That's really where I learned the value of surrounding myself with quality people, and turning them loose," he said. "That really taught me the value of teamwork and trusting people to do the right things, but of course, that kind of hurt me this time, didn't it? ... In my case, we trusted the director of finance to do things that apparently didn't happen."

The Gainesville school board voted 3-2, divided along racial lines, to fire the superintendent after some members of the community called for his termination due to an expected $6.5 million budget deficit.

Janet Allison, the school system's finance director who replaced Angela Adams last year, now estimates the system will face a $5.6 million deficit, pending the board's adoption of a final budget later this month.

New board members Sammy Smith and Maria Calkins joined the school board in January, and voted along with board chairman David Syfan to fire Ballowe.

School board members Willie Mitchell and Kelvin Simmons, who each have served on the board for more than 16 years, voted against terminating Ballowe's contract.

While some rejoiced the outcome of the vote, others lamented the loss. "I just couldn't believe it when I heard this," Willis said. "I'm telling you, I think he's one of the better superintendents because he got the focus on kids in Gainesville city and he got the focus on their achievements."

Mitchell and Simmons said they credit the former superintendent with the significant academic gains minority students have made since Ballowe was hired in 2001.

Mitchell said Ballowe's methods led to the local minority community watching its children succeed for the first time since integration. He said when Ballowe came into the superintendent position in 2001, it was like a tide rose in the harbor, lifting all students, including the ritzy yacht and the little tugboat.

But Ballowe's critics credit the federal No Child Left Behind Act that President Bush signed in January 2002 with the success of Gainesville's minority students, which make up roughly 80 percent of the system's nearly 6,000 students.

According to results posted on the state Department of Education Web site, the Gainesville city school system was made up of 75 percent economically disadvantaged students in 2007; 29 percent were English language learners and 9 percent of students had disabilities.

Harben said Ballowe confronted the challenges facing the high minority and impoverished school system head on, and that's why the board hired him.

"He wasn't afraid to take on some new challenges and try some new things," Harben said. "He had a track record of good achievement with a diverse population, and we knew that was exactly what we had in Gainesville."

In 2007, the system made Adequate Yearly Progress, a measurement of academic progress as defined by the No Child Left Behind Act. In addition, the system's graduation rate staggered from 71.8 percent in 2005 to 64.6 percent in 2006, but rose to 80.7 percent in 2007. The state average graduation rate in 2007 was 72.3 percent. Gainesville High School's 2007 graduation rate put the school in the 84th percentile, according to the state Department of Education.

Harben said Ballowe has made a lasting impression on the public education system in Georgia.
In June, the Georgia General Assembly passed charter school legislation drafted by Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, with Ballowe's help. Cagle has lauded Ballowe's educational approach, as have Gov. Sonny Perdue and State Superintendent of Education Kathy Cox.

"And even old George Bush said it," Simmons said.

On Sept. 2, 2004, President Bush stated at the Republic National Convention: "We are insisting on accountability, empowering parents and teachers, and making sure that local people are in charge of their schools, by testing every child, we are identifying those who need help. ... In Northeast Georgia, Gainesville Elementary School is mostly Hispanic and 90 percent poor -- and this year 90 percent of the students passed state tests in reading and math."

Harben said the superintendent has had his fair share of ups and downs in Gainesville, and called him a "lightning rod" for controversy.

"The flaw Steven Ballowe had is that he wasn't as politically savvy as maybe he needed to have been," Harben said. "There were times I was disappointed in him, but there were times I was elated with him."
Ballowe said he felt the budget deficit the school board faces was out of his control, and maintains that his firing was unjust.

"It'll be interesting to see if the deficit, in actuality, doubled because of a rollback that occurred in October of 2007. ... The economy is out of the superintendent's control, when revenue comes in a little bit less," he said. "I do feel there are certain elements of the community that would rather never mention Steve Ballowe or the Gainesville Model ever again, and that doesn't bother me in the least as long as the children and the parents and the families have the choices, the options and the opportunities. That's what matters."

So what's next for the jobless man some hail as a visionary?

"I've had a couple of interesting job opportunities," Ballowe said. "The wonderful part is, I still have a pretty good reputation. People understand the politics of being a superintendent, and sometimes you are the scapegoat."



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